Inside Track | Why research funding cuts won’t stop us working with the Global South

Universities are uniquely placed to be agents for progressive change. To drive down inequalities and make our world a fairer, more humane place with greater equality of opportunity for all.

Inside Track | Why funding cuts won’t stop us working with the Global South. March 2021

That belief is at the heart of our new strategy for the next 10 years. And that’s a key reason why we, like many colleagues across the University, were dismayed when the Spending Review in November announced a reduction in Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). Amongst many other things, this money supports research that benefits some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. So, these aren’t just figures on a spread sheet. This will have a telling impact on the lives and life chances of vast numbers of people across the globe.

To put some more figures on it, this decision means that for the first time since 2013, the UK will not meet the UN recommended target of 0.7% GNI, despite this being enshrined in law since 2015. Coupled with the decrease in GNI caused by the covid-19 pandemic, the total ODA budget will be reduced by nearly one-third, to a little over £10 billion.

But perhaps the biggest shock, for universities at least, followed last week, when it was announced that this cut will not just impact future ODA-funded research, but will also directly affect projects currently underway as well. 

Making a positive impact in the world

Some ODA funding is funnelled through universities, supporting research between the UK and LMICs (Low and Middle Income Countries), building national capacities and delivering the evidence base required for transformational change, for example by influencing policy decisions of relevant governments. As a University, we have been highly successful in securing Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) and Newton funding during the past few years – both of which are research funding schemes that distribute ODA money. We rank third for number of awards – and this has allowed us to work on many multi-institution and multi-country initiatives that have had a significant positive impact on our world.

While being rightly proud of this achievement, we are now left trying to minimise the damage to our research and impact; to our valued international partners, who have also been hit hard by these cuts; and to the career aspirations and prospects of the early career researchers employed on these projects, both in Leeds and with our partner organisations. We are working tirelessly to limit the damage as much as possible, both through external lobbying, primarily through the Russell Group and Universities UK, and internal planning, and we cannot thank everyone enough for their support as our mitigation plans develop. We are demonstrating once again that as a University community, we can rise to meet difficult challenges head on and keep to our central mission: to shape our future world for the better.

Future-proofing our research

So, how do we respond to this in the longer term and future-proof our research as best we can against such shocks? The research and innovation delivery plan supporting our new strategy outlines our plans to develop ‘research portfolios’. These actively supported portfolios will encompass a wide range of projects across disciplines, geographies and funders, all working towards addressing a common global challenge, such as climate change or health inequalities. By bringing together groups of loosely connected projects, we believe we can make the most of our greatest strength: the ability to bring thought leaders from many different disciplines to bear on a single problem.

Through this approach, we will be able to create true societal impact, changing our future world for the better. And this is not just a pipedream – the exemplar for this approach comes directly from our ODA-supported projects. For example, Our Health Systems portfolio encompasses more than £30 million of funding from multiple sources, involves staff from every faculty and has impacts stretching from Ghana to Indonesia, improving health outcomes and reducing health inequalities; and, the Future Climate for Africa portfolio is delivering improved weather forecasts and climate scenarios to build greater resilience in food, energy and health systems through a £40 million portfolio of projects across nine African partner countries, from Senegal to South Africa.

So, not only do we have faith that this approach will work, creating significant and long-lasting impact, but we can already see how portfolios, such as Our Health Systems and Future Climate for Africa, are more resilient due to their diverse mix of skills, partners and funders.

Creating new opportunities

However, to think of the research portfolios approach as simply being a mechanism to build sustainable research funding is missing the point. One of the greatest achievements of ODA-funded research, of which colleagues are rightly proud, is the progress that has been made in creating truly equal partnerships with researchers in developing countries, co-designing and co-delivering projects that benefit everyone, everywhere.

Research portfolios will further build on these achievements, aiming to help insulate our long-term ambitions from short-term shocks, even one as dramatic as the current cut in ODA funding. We are already looking at how we will pivot these projects, using our established, deep international partnerships to create new funding opportunities to support our ongoing work and help positively shape our future world.

So, to return to our new University strategy, it proudly states ‘Universal Values, Global Change’. You may ask if this latest episode undermines our ability to “harnesses our expertise in research and education to help shape a better future for humanity, working through collaboration to tackle inequalities, achieve societal impact and drive change”? The short answer is that we won’t let it. That mission is too fundamental.

We cannot underplay the seriousness of these cuts, how disappointed we are by them and the impact they will have on our work. However, challenges such as this convince us that we are correct in everything we aspire to do. Universities have repeatedly shown their resilience, their ability to navigate choppy waters, reacting to obstacles as they appear, and to be a force for good. As we emerge from the pandemic phase of covid-19, the world will face many new challenges. But we are confident that universities are well placed to meet them, and we will continue to position Leeds at the heart of global networks aimed at creating a more resilient and equitable future. The rewards and the consequences are too profound for us to take any other course.

Professor Simone Buitendijk, Vice-Chancellor, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Nick Plant

Find out more about what our ODA-funded projects have achieved.

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